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Media Reviews for Media People: Dobrow on Forbes

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I don't leave the apartment except for fire alarms and Springsteen concerts, so the work-related travel I've had to do over the last few weeks has been a shock to my system. Feverish rushes to board the jet, gabby rowmates, unyielding magic-mattress-number hotel beds ... I have no idea how you folks with nomadic jobs cope with the nuisance. Mercifully, after an end-of-week sojourn in the mountain time zone, I get to return to my pod, at which point I shall fuse myself to the couch and enter couples therapy with my neglected TV.
Forbes may be the most thoughtful of the business mags, the one that cares least about the personalities of the execs and companies it covers and most about their place in the larger scheme of things.
Forbes may be the most thoughtful of the business mags, the one that cares least about the personalities of the execs and companies it covers and most about their place in the larger scheme of things.

To pass the hours in transit, I've been peeking around to see what my peers are reading. Say what you want about the publishing business and the icy terror in its heart when it contemplates the future, but people confined to planes or waiting areas sure love their magazines, especially Us Weekly. In my informal survey, magazines outnumbered books by around five to one. (Related: I need a hobby.)

Yesterday's news
Anyway, I now feel knowledgeable enough to anoint Forbes as the most discarded business magazine in the continental U.S. I've seen soiled copies of it wedged into seat-back pouches, strewn across hotel lobbies, nesting in an LAX toilet stall. People seem unable to dispose of their Forbes in either a considerate or environmentally sound manner. I'm with Singapore here: Let's cane the dickens out of the litterers.

Beyond the aforementioned travelers-are-pigs argument, there are two ways to explain the glut of abandoned issues. First, that Forbes stimulates such deep thought in its readers that they lose the ability to keep track of their possessions; or second, that readers are so put off by the mag's relentless yay-for-capitalism thrust that they must divorce themselves from it suddenly and with great malice.

It's probably a combination of explanations one and two. Forbes may be the most thoughtful of the business mags, the one that cares least about the personalities of the execs and companies it covers and most about their place in the larger scheme of things. At the same time, Forbes is the most strenuously, joylessly on-point publication I've ever read, so smothering in its pro-biz mission as to make me yearn for a fluffy, speculative report on Britney's finances.

How special is that?
The March 24 issue of Forbes -- heralded as a "special" issue, just as NBC used to herald "special" episodes of "Blossom" -- is all about billionaires. There are 1,125 of 'em in the world, Forbes sez. They have nicer stuff than you do and, as witnessed by the cover image, similarly natty taste in leisurewear.

I like the billionaire-boys package, apart from the foldout spread that juxtaposes faux-unposed pix with a big honkin' tequila ad. In each of the tightly written profiles, Forbes makes the wise choice of concentrating on the individual's contributions to business and society rather than on the individual himself. In doing so, the mag establishes why these people matter, beyond their ability to subsidize entire municipalities. Personality comes in the form of a New York vs. London vs. Moscow pricing grid, a bit on "Moguls as Meddlers," and a map charting the home countries of the rich folk. It turns out that our fair country has the most billionaires, not to mention the most cheerleaders per capita and the best cheeseburgers. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Elsewhere, though, the March 24 issue loses its way by overdoing, even for the Forbes audience, the business-is-life theme. Pieces that demand at least an iota of backstory or context -- the ones on a wine chieftain accused of massive fraud and on a possible cure for macular generation -- plod forward with the vitality of a tollbooth attendant. Additionally, the mag eagerly slaps easy-to-parse labels on its subjects, like "the most honest man in telecom" or "the champ Internet stock picker," as if it doesn't trust its readers to make the leap on their own.

Skimping on image
It wouldn't hurt for Forbes to investigate the possibility of hiring a photographer or an art department, either. Perhaps titans of commerce aren't the most photogenic subjects ("Mr. Buffett, sir, why don't we try a few shots without the cravat and goblet?") but it still takes serious anti-skills to make vacuum magnate James Dyson look like a homeless man availing himself of the hand dryers in a Port Authority bathroom.

The mag places one squinty, wind-whipped telecom exec in front of his own billboard and the aforementioned "champ Internet stock picker" on a cliff overlooking the ocean, with surfboard in hand. See, that's clever because the guy is a surfer who surfs the Internet. Kudos to the master of subtle visual metaphor who dreamed it up. Next time out, consider illustrating a piece about a seafood mogul with a shot of the guy holding a fishing pole.

As for advertisers, Forbes features the exact slate of buy-us-because-you-deserve-the-best brand messages (Jaguar, Four Seasons, Rolex, Northwestern Mutual) you'd expect, with two exceptions: GE and Dell touting their enviro-friendliness and a well-preserved broad, Irene Valenti, hyping her upper-crust matchmaking prowess. Forbes is also welcoming on the advertorial front, with multipage spreads for Accenture ("a special excerpt from the journal of high-performance business"), Burgess Yachts, and some joint Dubai/Orlando tourism dealie that I don't quite understand.

Forbes is far from inaccessible to the average reader, choosing cover topics -- like this issue's "Richest People in the World" theme or January's "Company of the Year" anointment -- that should connect with anyone who has even a mild interest in business. Still, just about everything else between its covers all but chases off non-hardcore businessheads with a pitchfork. Maybe that's a good thing in this increasingly niche-y era -- serve the loyalists first, right? In any event, here's hoping the mag's presentation catches up with the words at some point.
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